Donna Summer’s greatest songs – ranked!

As her ill-starred 1981 album I’m a Rainbow gets remixed and reissued, we celebrate the queen of disco’s best work

20. True Love Survives (1981)

Sessions for Donna Summer’s I’m a Rainbow were interrupted when her label boss David Geffen fired producers Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte. The unfinished album was eventually released in 1996 – a remix collection is out this week – revealing at least one killer in the classic Summer mode. True Love Survives shines, even in demo form.

19. She Works Hard for the Money (1983)

Perhaps the fact that she was mired in a costly legal battle with her record company lent Summer’s vocal its edge on She Works Hard for the Money. Its sound is very 1983 – glossy pop-rock – but something about her vocal and the lyrics, apparently inspired by seeing an exhausted restroom attendant at an expensive restaurant, cuts through.

18. Dinner With Gershwin (1987)

The jazz-influenced soul of singer-songwriter Brenda Russell was strikingly original –her 1979 single Way Back When sounds like prog disco, if such a thing can be imagined. Dinner With Gershwin was more straightforward, but still off-beam by late 80s pop standards. A terrific song, brilliantly delivered and a highlight of Summer’s post-Moroder career.

17. Love’s Unkind (1977)

I Remember Yesterday was another concept album, this time with each track representing a different era of music (I Feel Love was supposed to symbolise the future, a brief it more than fulfilled). Love’s Unkind, meanwhile, is a glorious girl-group pastiche: dancefloor beat, melody as sweet and snappy as bubblegum.

Donna Summer
Donna Summer. Photograph: Armando Pietrangeli/Shutterstock

16. No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) (1979)

A duet with Barbra Streisand that rivals I Will Survive for both camp grandiloquence and fierce up-yours-mate post-breakup energy, No More Tears careers joyously along at warp speed, its sheer pace seeming to presage the shift from disco to hi-energy in some US gay clubs.

15. Grand Illusion (1980)

The Wanderer was a relative commercial failure, but it’s a better and far more adventurous album than that suggests, as Grand Illusion proves: an enveloping psychedelic swirl of electronic sound, topped off with a vocal that sounds unexpectedly like Kate Bush. Not what anyone expected from Donna Summer, which may have been the problem.

14. Bad Girls (1979)

There is a whole sub-genre of disco consisting of other producers attempting to mimic the Chic sound; see DJ Dave Lee’s 2015 compilation of knock-off singles, Le Freak. Perhaps Bad Girls belongs on it – check the guitar, horns and backing vocals – but if it is a homage, it’s of the highest quality: the song is well up to the standards of its chief influence.

13. MacArthur Park (1978)

A work of crazy genius. It’s certainly a unique mind that listens to Richard Harris’s floridly preposterous 1968 single MacArthur Park and thinks: “This could do with camping up a bit.” Cue Syndrums, massed backing vocals and a string arrangement that makes the original’s sound unassuming. Summer’s vocal, meanwhile, is superb.

12. Dim All the Lights (1979)

You tend to hear more about Moroder and Belotte’s sonic innovations than about what an incredible singer Summer was. Dim All the Lights – a beautiful song, written by Summer alone – redresses the balance. Check the note she hits at 0:46 and holds for 16 seconds.

11. Hot Stuff (1979)

Eradicate from your mind The Full Monty and – worse – a visibly mortified Prince Charles joining in with the film’s dance routine on a visit to Sheffield and concentrate on the sound of Hot Stuff: the tautness of its disco-rock hybrid backing, the pop smarts of its songwriting, Summer’s raw performance.

Donna Summer
Summer here kids … Donna on stage in 1975. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns

10. Love to Love You Baby (1975)

Moroder’s early recordings with Summer were a decidedly mixed bag – listen to 1974’s The Hostage for proof – but they struck gold with a Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus for the 70s. The shock of Summer’s orgasmic groans tended to obscure the skill with which Moroder extended the track; its 17 minutes never lag or plateau.

9. Sunset People (1979)

The closing track of Bad Girls offers a fabulous electronic hymn to Los Angeles after dark. It manages to spike its evocation of night falling on an exciting city – “The street’s alive below your feet” – with something noticeably more sinister: its cast of characters are “holding on to the last breath of life”.

8. Working the Midnight Shift (1977)

The great hidden gem on Once Upon a Time takes I Feel Love’s futuristic sound to an achingly sad extreme. Summer’s weightless vocal tells the story of a sex worker looking glumly on as nightlife revellers enjoy themselves, over icy, relentless synths. It sounds so modern, it’s staggering to think it’s nearly 45 years old.

7. Spring Affair (1976)

The opening cut from the self-explanatorily titled Four Seasons of Love is also its high point: a gorgeous, dancefloor-focused evocation of blossoming romance that is by turns dreamy, sexy and slightly spaced-out. Moroder’s house band, the Munich Machine, are absolutely on fire here, constructing an electric piano-led groove that’s urgent but intricate.

6. On the Radio (1979)

Summer’s lyrics sound like they have been put through Google Translate – “Someone found a letter you wrote me on the radio / And they told the world just how you felt” is a very odd way to say you heard a song that reminded you of your ex – but the music is sublime, sweeping from sad reflection to total euphoria.

5. Lucky (1979)

Summer’s contribution to the bulging pantheon of disco songs about one-night stands, Lucky’s backing feels like a more muted relation of I Feel Love, but it exploits the gulf between the chattering electronics and Summer’s ethereal vocal in a completely different way. Instead of sounding erotic, it feels chillingly lonely, melancholy and resigned.

4. Rumour Has It/I Love You/Happily Ever After (1977)

A cheat, perhaps, condensing three tracks into one entry, but the side-long medley that closes Once Upon a Time perfectly expresses Summer and Moroder’s ambitious approach to disco. More than a simple segue, it’s an emotional arc – the shift from the burning anticipation of Rumour Has It to I Love You’s giddy rapture is the most life-affirming moment in Summer’s catalogue.

3. Last Dance (1978)

The disco cash-in movie Thank God It’s Friday is understandably forgotten these days, but its soundtrack featured one of Summer and Moroder’s greatest creations, which rightly won an Oscar. Lushly orchestrated, high drama, it swells from a ballad-like beginning into the perfect end-of-the-night anthem (and, on the eight-minute 12-inch version, back again).

2. State of Independence (1982)

State of Independence shouldn’t work: it’s a cover of an ungainly cod-reggae track by Jon and Vangelis, with nonsensical “mystical” lyrics. And yet Summer’s version is incredible. Bolstered by an all-star choir assembled by producer Quincy Jones, its gradual build to a hymn-like finale is impossibly stirring and moving. An amazing, perplexing single.

1. I Feel Love (1977)

Devotees of Kraftwerk may disagree, but there is a compelling argument that I Feel Love – a gorgeous, gleaming spaceship of a single – is the most influential piece of electronic music ever. Brian Eno’s famous assessment – “It will change club music for the next 15 years” – fell woefully short. Forty-four years later, its sound is still an essential part of pop’s DNA. You’re never far from a new release mimicking its arpeggiated bassline, which helps explain why it hasn’t dated at all. Take your pick from the original or Patrick Cowley’s incredible remix. As DJ-producer Erol Alkan put it: “It deserves to be transmitted to alien planets as an example of humankind’s achievements in expression.”

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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